XLIV: The Mountain Mystery

Everybody loves a good scary story, especially around Halloween, which was two weeks ago and I’m bad at holidays so I forgot to make a Halloween-themed post.

My bad.

Anyways, if you want a really scary story, you can’t get much weirder than the Dyatlov Pass Incident.

Back in 1959, a group of ten hikers decided they were going to go on an adventure up Kholat Syakhl, a mountain in the Ural range in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia. They were mostly college students at Ural Polytechnic Institute, and all were very accomplished hikers and outdoorsmen, so although the trip they had planned was quite difficult, they were all more than skilled enough to handle it. Their goal was to ski and trek up through Dyatlov Pass (which was unnamed at the time) to Otorten Mountain. The ten hikers set out from the small mountain town of Vizhai on January 27th, 1959, led by 23-year-old Igor Dyatlov, for whom the pass would later be named. The next day, 22-year-old Yuri Yudin was too ill to continue with the trip, so he turned back. Dyatlov promised that he and the remaining nine group members would send a telegram to Yudin when they returned to Vizhai, which would be in about ten days. He guaranteed the message would arrive by February 12th at the very latest.

On January 31st, the group cached supplies for use on the way back, and on February 1st, they began moving out of the valley and up the steep part of the pass. The plan was to get up over the pass by nightfall and make camp on the other side, but snowstorms and low visibility slowed their progress. They accidentally moved off their planned path and up the side of Kholat Syakhl, where they decided to make camp for the night. Yudin later speculated that Dyatlov’s decision to camp on the mountainside was either to avoid losing the altitude they had gained or to get practice with camping on a steep slope. It’s also possible they were simply not able to make their way back to the forested valley due to low visibility.

That’s when everything went wrong.

February 12th came and went with no message from Dyatlov to Yudin. Yudin assumed the group had been delayed by the persistent bad weather, as such delays are extremely common in mountaineering expeditions. By February 20th, the families of the nine hikers were beginning to worry, and demanded a rescue expedition. Volunteers from Ural Polytechnic Institute made up the first search party, and soon, the army and police became involved, bringing in planes and helicopters to aid in the search and rescue. On the 26th, the party’s tent was found, ripped apart from the inside with possessions strew across the pass. Several sets of footprints left by bare or stocking feet led down to the edge of the forest, where, under a large cedar tree, searchers found the remains of a fire and the bodies of 21-year-old Yuri Doroshenko and 24-year-old Yuri Krivonishenko, wearing only their underwear. Shortly thereafter, the bodies of Dyatlov, 22-year-old Zinaida Kolmogorova, and 23-year-old Rustem Slobodan were found between the camp and the cedar. The broken branches of the cedar and the position of the bodies suggested that they had climbed the tree to scan the landscape and then decided to try and return to camp. All five had died of hypothermia.

It took more than two months to find the remaining four ski-hikers — 21-year-old Lyudmila Dubinina, 25-year-old Alexander Kolevatov, 24-year-old Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolles, and 38-year-old Semyon Zolotariov. They were found under 13 feet of snow in a ravine in the woods. They were dressed in some of the clothing that had been missing from the other hikers, suggesting that they had taken clothing from their dead companions in an attempt to stay alive long enough to find help. They also had major internal injuries but no external injuries; so severe was the damage that it was equivalent to being struck head-on by a speeding car. This suggests that they had died from falling into the ravine, although Kolevatov died of hypothermia, probably after climbing down into the ravine to help his companions. He was wearing Dubinina’s fur coat and hat, suggesting that he died last after making one final effort to stay warm and find help.

There are quite a few theories about what happened, ranging from aliens to St. Elmo’s fire, freak lightning, an attack by the indigenous Mansi people, radiation, a military test gone wrong, infrasonic waves driving the hikers mad, or an avalanche, which is the most likely explanation. The most accepted theory is that an avalanche buried the tent in the night, and the hikers did not have time to dress before cutting themselves out of the tent and unburying themselves. They then sought cover and tried to warm up, but were too scantily dressed to fend off hypothermia. Once the first two died, the others took their clothing and went back to the tent after climbing a tree to determine the landscape was safe. Three more died on the mile-long hike to the tent and the remaining four fell into the ravine while going for help.

We may never be sure of what exactly happened in Dyatlov Pass, but we can know that this tragic loss of nine young people was downright freaky.

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